By Joe Cox
(Revised Monday, Jan. 19)
So here we are. It’s mid-January, and the Kentucky Wildcats are undefeated. Despite UK being the winningest program in college basketball history, these are relatively unknown grounds for ‘Cat fans. So let’s look back at prior UK teams (since World War II) which reached mid January with an “and 0” record, and see how they ended up faring.
2010: John Calipari’s initial brand of ‘Cats reached 19-0 before being dethroned at South Carolina on January 26th, 68-62. It wasn’t all sunshine and rainbows for Cal’s young kittens, as the team needed a John Wall jumper to survive Miami of Ohio in the second game of the season. A near loss in Cancun to Stanford was another early stumble. UK had beaten only two ranked teams in their 19-0 start, and the two wins (over UNC and UConn) were by a total of five points.
The ‘Cats’ first loss was mostly due to USC’s Devan Downey, who had 30 of the Gamecocks’ 68 points. The ‘Cats were also outrebounded by the diminutive South Carolina squad. UK lost only once more in the regular season, at Tennessee, and reached the Elite Eight before bowing out to West Virginia.
1993: Rick Pitino’s fourth UK squad reached January 13th before losing at Vanderbilt, 101-86. The season started later in those days, and the top-ranked ‘Cats were only 11-0 when they were upset. The culprit in the loss? Well, Vandy shot 63% from the field, and took 43 free throws to 19 for UK.
Pitino’s bombers lost at Arkansas and Tennessee, before suffering a fourth loss in the Final Four to Chris Webber and Michigan’s Fab Five.
1984: Joe B. Hall’s team reached 12-0 before losing at Auburn on January 13th. Kentucky lost by 19 as Charles Barkley and Chuck Person combined for 46 points in the game.
Hall’s ‘Cats lost their next game at Florida, and also lost at Alabama and Tennessee. The team reached the Final Four against Georgetown before it suffered another defeat.
1978: Hall’s title team was undefeated until January 23, when they lost at Alabama, 78-62. The 14-0 ‘Cats were outshot and outrebounded by C.M. Newton’s Crimson Tide.
The team lost a one-point overtime heartbreaker at LSU, but did not lose again. The season ended with a 94-88 win over Duke in the NCAA title game, giving UK its fifth such trophy.
1970: Adolph Rupp’s last great UK squad ran the table until January 31st, when the 15-0 ‘Cats lost at Vanderbilt, 89-81. Perry Wallace, the SEC’s first African-American basketball player, scored 20 points and grabbed 19 rebounds for the Commodores, who beat Kentucky badly on the backboard.
The Wildcats would not lose again until an Elite Eight matchup with Jacksonville and Artis Gilmore. Rupp’s last great shot at a title ended in a 106-100 loss that is one of the toughest in program history.
1966: The Runts are the closest UK team to season-long perfection, holding out until March 5th, when they lost the next to last game of the regular season at Tennessee. The 23-0 Cats had survived a double overtime win at Georgia earlier in the season. Tennessee outrebounded the ‘Cats and held Louie Dampier to five points to win 69-62.
UK’s only other loss came in the national title game to Texas Western.
1954: The 25-0 ‘Cats never lost. Unfortunately, they declined to play in the NCAA Tournament, after Cliff Hagan, Frank Ramsey, and Lou Tsioropoulos were ruled to be ineligible for the tournament because they were graduate students in their senior season. Since the big three had accounted for 66% of UK’s scoring on the season, it was deeply unlikely that the ‘Cats could’ve won without them.
That said, the undefeated ‘Cats never won by less than six points all season long and are rightfully remembered as one of the most powerful UK teams ever.
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Seven total prior UK teams in the post-WWII-era have reached mid-January without a loss. The 1954 team, of course, did not play in the NCAA Tournament. But of the other six, none ended their season before the Elite Eight of the NCAA Tournament. Four of the six reached the Final Four, two reached the NCAA title game, and one took home the grand prize.
None of the seven teams lost a home game all season long. The reason that most of the teams finally lost was that they had a game when they were dominated on the backboard.
What does it all mean? Well, UK should be safe at home, which didn’t require study to figure out. On the road, get to the glass… and if the ‘Cats can reach February 1st as an undefeated team, they’re in a place UK basketball hasn’t been in 49 years.
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If the NCAA Tournament began today… well, the person in your office who knows nothing about sports would win the prize. Parity is the rule. I can’t make myself believe that Gonzaga is really the No. 3 team in the nation. That said, I think we’re looking ahead to an NCAA Tournament where anything can, and possibly will, happen.
It will be interesting to see if the SEC’s tournament success last season (with all three SEC teams reaching the Sweet 16, and two in the Final Four) will mean a better break for the squads on the selection bubble. It certainly should matter, but again, anything can happen.
Joe Cox is contributing editor for Kysportsstyle360.com. He grew up in Letcher County and Bell County, and has written three books involving UK sports, 100 Things Wildcats Fans Should Know and Do Before They Die, Fightin’ Words: Kentucky vs. Louisville (both with Ryan Clark), and Voice of the Wildcats: Claude Sullivan and the Rise of Modern Sportscasting (with Alan Sullivan). Joe is an attorney and lives in Logan County with his wife and children. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org